The festive season is upon us and that means it's time for nuts and dried fruits. We may have transitioned from cashews and almonds to hazelnuts and macadamia nuts, and dried blueberries and cranberries may have nudged good old kishmish (raisins) aside, but the Indian festive season remains inseparable from the cherished "dry fruit dabbas." I distinctly recall the red and white plastic bags of the iconic American Dry Fruits in Mumbai from my childhood that would be carried around during these times.
There is something fascinating about tree nuts that connects to why they are good for us. Nuts are seeds from trees (except for peanuts, which are legumes), whole grains are seeds from grasses. Trees live for centuries, some for over a thousand years, and face tough conditions throughout their lives. To survive, they produce fat as a long-term energy source for their offspring. Grass, on the other hand, has a very short life span as it is regularly grazed, so it needs to grow rapidly. As a result, it makes carbohydrates which are fast fuel. Therefore, nuts are high in fats while grains are easily digestible carbs. If it came from a tree, it is likely to be healthier than what came from grass.
Nuts are one of the few foods that are both good for us and also taste good. The texture and unique flavour of each type make them addictive. While nuts are a healthy snack, it is important to eat them in moderation. A handful (roughly 1 ounce or 30 grams) of nuts per day is a good amount to aim for. This will give you the health benefits of nuts without adding too many calories to your diet.
Setting aside the cost factor, it might seem that nuts are the simplest healthy foods to include in a healthy diet – just buy them, store them wisely, and eat them in moderation. However, self-proclaimed nutrition experts on the internet constantly speak about the presence of anti-nutrients (the widely regarded villain) in nuts, advocating for soaking, sprouting, and adding unnecessary complexity to the straightforward act of including nuts in one's diet.
Let me decode this for you.
To Soak Or Not To Soak
Dr Dan Gubler, scientist, PhD, and phytonutrient chemist in a recent video on Instagram said that there was no scientific proof behind the much-touted social media advice that soaking nuts helped in better absorption of its nutrients.
A study was conducted to examine the effects of the various soaking regimes on whole and chopped almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, and walnuts, with focus on analysing the phytate and mineral concentrations. The results found that ‘activating’ nuts by soaking does not increase nutrient bioavailability.
On the contrary, when you soak nuts in water, the beneficial trace minerals magnesium, manganese, and zinc selenium leach out into the water and are lost when the water is discarded.
Roasted Or Plain?
Roasting deepens the flavour of nuts, making them even more delicious. You can roast nuts in the oven on a baking tray at a low temperature (up to 75°C) or on a stovetop in a heavy-bottomed pan, or spread them out on the glass plate of the microwave oven and microwave for two minutes or so.
Different nuts react differently to roasting. As a rule, keeping the temperature low and roasting for a short time will cause minimal nutrient damage. Contrary to popular belief, roasting can reduce the shelf life of nuts, so it's best to roast smaller quantities that can be used within a week.
The best practice is to buy raw nuts and roast them at home as per your requirement as store-bought roasted nuts may use additional oil to roast as well as added salt and sugar, all of which are avoidable when nuts are being added to the diet for their health benefits.
Salted or Unsalted?
Most nuts are naturally low in sodium and rich in magnesium and potassium, making them a heart-healthy food. While it doesn't make sense to negate the heart-healthy benefits by consuming salted nuts, you can add a pinch of salt for seasoning while roasting.
This way, you'll still be consuming far less sodium than store-bought roasted and salted nuts.
Whole Or As Nut Butter?
Although nuts are high in fats, not all of it is absorbed by the body as some of it is trapped in the fibrous structure of the cells which are not released by mere chewing. The lower the particle size of the processed nuts such as in nut flour or nut butter, the more fat is released and absorbed, resulting in higher calories.
Most nut butter also has added oils, sugar and salt, which goes against the health benefits of whole nuts. Nut butter can also lead to increased calorie consumption compared to whole nuts. Chewing whole nuts provides a sense of fullness and satiety that is absent with nut butter.
Health Benefits Of Nuts
Nuts are calorie-dense but they offer ‘good’ calories, packed with nutrients like unsaturated fats (the healthy kind), protein, potent antioxidants like vitamin E and minerals. These collectively contribute to heart health by lowering bad cholesterol (LDL), promoting vascular health, maintaining lower blood pressure and reducing overall inflammation in the body. All nuts are low glycaemic index foods and can be consumed by diabetics for their health benefits.
They are also a great source of fibre which goes unnoticed. I’ll give you an example. I’m back to using a continuous glucose monitoring sensor for a short while just to make sure my sugar levels are behaving in and around the festive seasons. I have a cup of ginger tea with one teaspoon of sugar to start my day. Just that one teaspoon of sugar on an empty stomach causes a small spike in my blood sugar levels which then sets the tone for the rest of the day. So to start my day on a better note, I take out four to five raw almonds from the freezer and chew on them mindfully while I make my tea. With this simple hack, I realise that my tea causes just a smaller and gentler curve in the graph thanks to the fibre and fats in the almonds which blunt the effect of the sugar in the tea.
Here are some ways to include nuts in your everyday diet in the most hassle-free manner.
Buy in small quantities and store in the freezer as nuts tend to go rancid easily.
Start your day by munching on 4-5 nuts while you brew your tea or coffee. No soaking is needed.
Nuts are the best on-the-go snack, so keep a small sealed packet in your bag for the times you are at work or on the road and hunger pangs are about to hit you.
At home, add a small handful of nuts to your oats porridge, salads, raita or subjis.
A few roasted walnuts or almonds along with a square of dark chocolate and a piece of cheese is the best after-dinner treat which won't increase your blood sugars.
With all this information (and misinformation cleared), I hope you are all set to make good use of the dried fruit dabbas that will come your way!